The 2012 NYC Marathon: How not to handle a crisis

We talk to crisis management expert Josh Greenberg about what the mayor and the NYRR should have done, could have done but didn't do.

November 7th, 2012 by | Posted in Uncategorized | Tags:

This year’s cancelled New York City Marathon was a lesson in how not to manage uncertainty from a public relations standpoint. The New York Road Runners and the Mayor’s office struggled to control their message and expectations, resulting not only in an untimely cancellation of the race, but residual resentment on the part of New Yorkers as well as the global running community.

Josh Greenberg, an avid runner and Associate Professor in Communication Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, kept a close eye on superstorm Sandy and the marathon cancellation. He is an expert in emergency-risk communication, with a keen interest in how social media is transforming the rules of engagement during PR crises. Greenberg will be using the 2012 NYC marathon as a case study for a public relations course he will be teaching this winter.

Canadian Running reached out to Greenberg to discuss just what went wrong and how communication between the NYRR, the mayor and the public could have been better handled, as well as where the NYRR should go from here.

Canadian Running: It seems to me that the mayor’s office, as well as the NYRR, made their biggest gaffes not on Friday afternoon, but earlier in the week. Can you unpack the situation during the earlier part of the week and perhaps talk about some of the key mistakes that were made from a PR standpoint?

Josh Greenberg: For starters, I want to say that situations such as this one are highly uncertain, difficult to manage, and in some respects easy to evaluate and judge from the sidelines. Having said this, the NYRR clearly made several mistakes in its risk communication efforts, particularly early on, and this set the difficult tone for all subsequent communication with the media, race participants and the public later in the week.

First, the race organization did not emphasize appropriate caution about information reliability. On the day after the storm made landfall, and over the course of the next 48-72 hours, comments from the NYRR, and later Mayor Bloomberg’s office, were overly, and inappropriately, reassuring. For New Yorkers, especially those in the low-lying regions who were watching the disaster unfold in front of them, and for the rest of us monitoring the event largely through our screens (on television, online news, and social media sites), Ms. Wittenberg’s assurances that “we’re going to have an amazing weekend” came well before the storm’s full effects were really felt; and once those effects became known, those comments appeared to be completely divorced from reality. Then again on Tuesday, the race’s medical director Dr. Weiss reinforced that message when he stated, “the City of New York and the Road Runners are committed to making sure that the marathon will occur on Sunday.” At this point, there was simply too much uncertainty for them to credibly say what should happen come Sunday.

While it’s important to always be proactive, positive and to offer hope and things for people to do in the face of so much uncertainty, organizations have to be very careful. They need to emphasize appropriate caution about the reliability of their information and not offer unreasonable assurances that are unwarranted by the data that’s available to them. The first 48 hours of this disaster were very fluid. This was a period marked by unstable, constantly evolving flows of information. The decision to come out and say definitively that the race must go on made so early in the crisis made the NYRR appear inappropriately bullish when the organization should have been more tempered in their assessments. For example, they would have been more credible to say something along the lines of the following:

“The situation in New York is highly uncertain at this time. While we remain optimistic and hopeful to be prepared for an amazing race on Sunday, it is too early for us to know at this time what the effects of the storm will be. We are in constant communication with the appropriate authorities and will be revising our assessments as more information becomes clear. We recognize this poses a challenge for athletes from around the world and so ask you to please be patient and to check our website for updates every few hours. We are committed to updating you on the situation as information becomes available to us. For those who have qualified for Sunday’s race but choose to voluntarily withdraw: even if the race proceeds, we are committed to bringing you back to New York and will have a formal deferral policy statement available shortly.”

Second, effective risk communication always cautions against drawing comparisons between different risk events. Both the NYRR and City officials immediately compared the risks of superstorm Sandy to those of 9/11 to suggest that New Yorkers should be able to pick themselves up by their boot-straps and carry on in the face of adversity. As Dr. Weiss remarked on Tuesday evening, “after 9/11 the marathon was part of the healing effort and we think this will be healing too.”  While this was perhaps an understandable comparison, I’d argue it was an inappropriate one for a few reasons:

First, there is a substantive and psychological difference between a terrorist attack and a major weather event — one of these is identifiable and can be battled (as we saw in the defiance of New Yorkers, and indeed many Americans after 9/11). A catastrophic natural disaster, on the other hand, cannot be resisted in the same way; second, in operational terms New York had two months to recover and reorganize for the marathon after 9/11 and barely two days to do so after Sandy. So while these are both examples of serious emergencies that tested and will continue to test the resolve of New Yorkers, their respective impacts on the race does not warrant a fair comparison. Finally, in my view neither the NYRR nor the mayor’s office should have ever put themselves in the position of acting as trauma specialists who could presume they would have the authority to decide for New Yorkers whether a marathon event would help them heal while they were still discovering bodies and bailing water from their homes.

Third, the response early on and over the course of the first 48-72 hours of the storm was completely tone deaf to the criticisms emerging in the media and on social networking sites. The negative response to Wittenberg’s first public comments began almost immediately and intensified over the first 48 hours of the crisis.

If the NYRR was monitoring public opinion  there’s no evidence that they appeared to be listening to what people were saying or adjusting their position accordingly. I spent much of those days monitoring the press and social media coverage. Voices of support, while they existed, were completely drowned out by the voices of dissent. Indeed, there was an opportunity on both Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning for race officials to make adjustments in their official position as new facts about the disaster began to emerge; but for reasons that are still unclear, they did not seize that opportunity and so appeared more focused on ensuring continuity in their messaging than achieving consonance with public opinion. By Friday, it was too late — public confidence and trust had eroded significantly by then. Bloomberg’s eventual decision to cancel the event on Friday was the right call, but it came far too late.

And fourth, in times of emergency officials need to coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources. If the NYRR wanted to appear credible in its assessment of the situation during the early days of the storm it would have needed corroborating assessments from disaster relief organizations, whether government agencies such as FEMA or NGOs like the Red Cross. –Yet both organizations were in serious crisis response mode, recommending New York residents register for federal disaster assistance. These kinds of statements were entirely at odds with the hopeful optimism of race organizers.

CR: We love to talk about “the power of social media” to get to some sort of collective truth of the matter. It seems to me that the building Twitter and Facebook response to the situation as the weekend wore on was not necessarily dictated by ‘truth’ and fact, so much as politicking. How do you think social media was used during this situation?

JG: Social media sites were important in this case for many reasons. With respect to the public relations battle, this was an event defined by high drama, rich symbolism and reinforced the power of image. Setting aside the substantive problems with what the NYRR and Mayor Bloomberg’s office actually said, their arguments that the race should proceed were made in the face of a torrent of quite powerful disaster imagery. In a period of only 3 days, more than 1 million photographs had been taken and uploaded from mobile phones and shared across social media platforms using the popular Instagram mobile camera app. As Mashable reported,  Sandy was Instagram’s big moment. Combined with all of the shared images from established news sites and those using other web-based and mobile media applications, the race organizer’s claim that there was time to clean up and the weekend will be “amazing” could really never prevail. In the context of an emergency, images of destruction and despair will always overpower the strength of words, no matter how optimistic or hopeful they may be.

CR: What role did the New York Post play in all of this? It’s surprising to me that a tabloid with an agenda would have such a massive and effective role in swaying public opinion. How is it that the mayor’s office failed to win this PR battle?

JG: Tabloids always thrive on controversy, and both the NYRR and Mayor Bloomberg’s office made it easy for the Post to take up its position as the outraged guardian of the public interest. The difficulty for both the race organization and the mayor’s office is that while the Post’s level and tone of outrage may have been exceptional, the substance of its criticism was widely shared with other media. And furthermore, there was no way either the race organizers or the mayor’s office would accuse any news organization of producing sensational coverage.

CR: The underlying issue that seemed to bubble to the surface with this situation was that there is very much a class divide in America, even within the five boroughs of New York City. Why do you think that this class conflict came to a head with a niche event like the marathon?

JG: Disasters always disproportionately hurt the poor. I don’t think the marathon per se brought the class divide within New York to the surface, so much as the impacts of the storm and the ways in which it reproduced and intensified those divisions. The notion of tens of thousands of athletes, many whom would have spent considerable sums of money to come to New York to run through a disaster zone, was part of the imagery that left so many runners and observers feeling queasy about the event.

CR: Why do you think they only called the race on Friday afternoon?

JG: I can only speculate, but would guess there wasn’t an effective emergency communication plan in place — if there was, we’ve never heard about it. The decision of major event sponsors like ING to withdraw their support on Friday morning no doubt sealed the deal. I suspect corporate donors would have preferred the NYRR or mayor’s office cancel the event sooner, but by Thursday the negative public response had begun to bleed and posed a threat to the sponsors’ own images and reputations.

CR: Finally, if you were advising the NYRR, how would you go about repairing the damage done to their reputation by this debacle?

JG: The big challenge they face now is restoring public trust and confidence, both within New York and in the global running community. The best way to rebuild that trust and confidence is to commit to an open and transparent process for reviewing what happened, to make changes in its emergency communications protocol and, if necessary, changes in its leadership. In the meantime, the NYRR should follow the lead that was set by the thousands of runners whose outpouring of support in Staten Island and NYC on race day reminds us not only about the importance of using sport as a vehicle for giving back, but of putting the needs of others first and always in times of emergency.